Symbolism in ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf


Virginia Woolf, one of the most prominent 20th-century novelists, is generally remembered as the pioneer in stream-of-consciousness techniques. This novel is as famous as The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho,  Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russel, A Passage to India by E.M Forster, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

 To the Lighthouse is one of her famous works. The novel is divided into three sections:' The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse.'

It is one of the best literary works ever written and centers around the theme of loss, subjectivity, and childhood recollection.

There are a lot of symbols being used in this novel. The majors are given below.


1. The Lighthouse

2. The Sea

3. Color Symbolism

4. The window

5. Lily Briscoe and her Painting

6. Ramsay's Summer House

7. Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay

8. Other Minor Symbols

1. The Lighthouse

 The 'Lighthouse' in this novel is described as a silvery misty-looking tower with yellow light. At the beginning of the book, the youngest son of Ramsay's family, James, wishes to visit, and it ends when he reaches there. The Lighthouse as a symbol has different interpretations, and the critics seem divided, but many agree that it represents strength, guidance, and a safe harbor. "It is a spiritual hermit guiding all those traveling by sea." Some critics believe that it shows the life of humanity, but the exciting thing is that it appears differently to each character.

To Mr. Ramsay, it seems as the source of stability and comfort, while for Mrs. Ramsay, the predictability and ultimate truth are essential. For Lily Briscoe, it becomes the source of fixation and inspiration. To James, it is a fascination initially, but at the final stage of the novel, it becomes a source of clarity and strength. 

It is believed that the symbol of the Lighthouse may have religious, social, and Telic meanings. Some critics have seen it as the allegory of the Old and new Testaments. They take it as the Garden of Eden. It is symbolized as truth triumphs over darkness. In simple words, different critic has explained this symbol differently.


 2. The Sea

The symbol of the sea is very important due to the novel's setting. The sea shows time's internal flux, where time and light come together throughout the first section. It represents the instability of time and life and suggests the human race in general and individual personality in particular. Violence and force bring destruction. The sea is a powerful reminder of the impermanence and delicacy of human life. In simple words, it symbolizes the movement of a human being.


3. Color Symbolism

Virginia Woolf uses a few colors in the novel 'To the Lighthouse' to portray the characters' traits. A close study shows that red and brown are the colors of individuality and egotism, while blue and green symbolize impersonality. Blue represents Lily's impersonal art, and red depicts the egotistical nature of Mr. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay's purple color shows the journey to egotism from impersonality.


4. The Window

The window in this novel is described as an opaque and separate sheet of glass. This glass sheet represents a hindrance between Ramsay's mind and the window. The window is quite a recurring symbol in Virginia Woolf's work. The window shows the mingling of his personality (Characters) with outer reality.

In this novel window is just like a screen between reality and consciousness. We come across moments of both revelation and integration in this novel. In short words, this window represents the imperfection of knowledge. It is an insight into our soul.


5. Lily Briscoe and her Painting

Lily Briscoe shows the personality of Virginia Woolf and her desire that a woman should be strong as Lily is. Lily symbolizes the feminist movement, and the painting represents her struggle in a patriarchal society. Virginia's motive behind writing this novel was to make women strong. 

Lily's struggle in a patriarchal society is shown through the composition of art and the texture of her painting. Her painting represents the dedication to the feminist artist's vision. By drawing Mrs. Ramsay's picture, she is paying tribute to all the women or the feminist movement. She disproves the popular narrative of that time that women couldn't paint or write.


6. Ramsay's Summer House

It is a significant and essential symbol because all the actions have occurred in this house. It is also important that all characters explain their belief and observation. The house represents the collective consciousness of all the people living there.

The second section, 'Time Passes,' takes over the plot's development, where all characters become brief, and gradually, the house decays. Nature is portrayed as an intruder causing its decay. The eventual decline of the house symbolizes the impermanence of the human being. The house's condition reflects some characters' war, destruction, and death. Finally, the house appears as a refuge. Virginia portrays the house from different angles because, through the house, the characters' state is reflected.


7. Mr. Ramsay and Mrs. Ramsay

 Interestingly, the entire characters stand for certain symbols, but we will focus on Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay.

Mrs. Ramsay

Mrs. Ramsay can be regarded as the creator of a fertile human relationship. She becomes a symbol of comfort, warmth, sympathy, and reassurance. She appears as a unifying force and harmony of good fellowship. "Lily sees Mrs. Ramsay's gift of harmonizing human relationships into memorable moments."

Mr. Ramsay

He has some flaws, as his children found in his character. Mr. Ramsay remains the symbol of a sterile destructive barrier to the relationship.

That is the reason Mrs. Ramsay opposes him. He lacks warmth and sympathy with others. Mrs. Ramsay symbolizes creative vitality, while Mr. Ramsay is a destructive barrier. He is like "a beak of brass, barren and bare." His knowledge shows fragmented, not wholeness.

8. Other Minor Symbols

Minor symbols are rocks, reefs, storms, and shallow water representing different things. Rocks, storms, surface water, and reefs show sufferings of life, danger, emotion, and difficulties, respectively.

The Boar skull is an important symbol hanging on the nursery wall. Mrs. Ramsay finds it unpleasant and disturbing because it reminds her of death. Boar Skull also shows the ultimate reality of life.


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  1. Lily’s painting represents a struggle against gender convention, represented by Charles Stanley's statement that women can’t paint or write. Lily’s desire to express Mrs. Ramsay’s essence as a wife and mother in the painting mimics the impulse among modern women to know and understand intimately the gendered experiences of the women who came before them. Lily’s composition attempts to discover and comprehend Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty just as Woolf’s construction of Mrs. Ramsay’s character reflects her attempts to access and portray her own mother.

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